This Article is published in the May 2012 issue

CRA Helps Deconstruct an iPad for Congress

By Peter Harsha

In a series of briefings dating back to last fall for Members of Congress and their staff, a set of high-profile speakers from the science community, including a Nobel Laureate, made the case for federal support of fundamental research by highlighting the role of federally supported research in the development of key technologies in Apple’s iPad, and what future benefits that support may bring.

The briefings—sponsored by CRA, in partnership with the Task Force on American Innovation, Association for Computing Machinery, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical Society, APS Physics, Materials Research Society, and Texas Instruments—examined three key enabling technologies in the popular device: the chips that power it, the sensors that allow it to know where it is and what it is looking at, and the innovative touchscreen and multi-touch gesture system. Speakers from academia, industry and government detailed the research that lead to these technologies, but also focused on where current research in those areas might lead.

“These technologies have enabled game-changing capabilities,” said Luis von Ahn, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University and the event moderator, “and without exception, they all bear the stamp of federal support for research.”

In opening the briefings, von Ahn laid out the themes each speaker would reiterate: that federal investment supports long-term research that often does not pay for 5, 10, 15 years or more—but when it does, those payoffs are spectacular; that fundamental research often pays off in unexpected ways; that university research does not supplant industry research, and vice-versa; and that the research ecosystem in the U.S. is fueled by the flow of people and ideas back and forth from universities, national labs and industry, and this robust ecosystem has made the U.S. the world leader. As a case study, he noted a 2003 National Academies review of the development of 19 billion-dollar sub-sectors of the IT economy, all of which had at some point in their evolution received federal support for early stage scientific research, moving the area forward.

The same could be said of the technologies in the iPad. Focusing on the chips in the iPad, Martin Izzard, Vice President of Research at Texas Instruments, noted the differences between the original integrated circuit developed in 1958 at Texas Instruments and Fairchild and the modern ARM processor that powers the iPad. “The chip in the iPad has the same computing power as a Cray2 supercomputer from 1985—a computer that was as big as an industrial refrigerator, cost $40 million, and ranked among the world’s fastest until the early 1990s,” he said. Izzard noted that the path from that original IC to the ARM chip—those exponential increases in complexity and decreases in size—were only possible because of an amazingly vibrant university and industry research ecosystem that pushed the technology forward. He added that even the original semiconductor work in the late 1950s owed a huge debt to early-stage physics research supported by the federal government, often by the Department of Defense, in prior decades.

Detailing some of that physics work at the briefings was William Phillips, a Nobel Laureate for his work on atomic clocks and a scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Phillips told the story of the global positioning system (GPS) that allows the iPad to know where it is in the world to within a few feet. The innovations that enabled GPS have their roots in early research on magnetic resonance—work that led to both magnetic resonance imaging for health uses (MRI) and on the development of super-accurate atomic clocks. The development of atomic clocks accurate to one-billionth of a second enabled GPS, a network of clocks in space that constantly beam their position and time. According to Phillips, any GPS receiver on the ground that can see four satellites can determine its position to the nearest foot, a level of accuracy that enables not only turn-by-turn directions, but accurate missile targeting, precision farming, and a whole suite of applications that can use knowledge of your current location to tailor content to your needs.

More exciting for Phillips is where the technology is headed. Current work in his lab may help enable quantum computing—a paradigm shift in computing “as different from the iPad as the iPad is different from an abacus.”

In the fall briefings, the panelists were joined by Ben Bederson, a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland, who detailed the story of the development of the touchscreen and multi-touch interface that makes the iPad so revolutionary in its ease of use. Bederson noted that early research on touch-screens can be traced at least as far back as the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in work funded by the Defense Department, and then again in the ‘80s and ‘90s in work funded by the National Science Foundation. In fact, Bederson pointed out the clear transition of work performed at the University of Delaware and supported by NSF on multi-touch touchscreen technology (originally conceived to alleviate the risk of repetitive stress injuries), to a spin-off company called FingerWorks, to Apple’s purchase of the company and its use of the technology in the iPhone and iPad devices.

Von Ahn wrapped up each briefing by pointing out that the story of the iPad is just one example of how federal support for early stage research is truly an investment with a history of extraordinary payoff—in the explosion of new technologies that have touched nearly every aspect of our lives, and in economic terms, in the creation of new industries and literally millions of new jobs. He also took pains to point out to the standing-room-only crowds on both the House and Senate sides of the Hill that the iPad is not a culmination of technology—it is just a mile-marker on a continuum of innovation that is improving our quality of life, a continuum of innovation made possible by federal research. “The federally supported research of today,” he said, “will drive the innovations that will change our lives in the years and decades ahead.”

Von Ahn and the other speakers briefed nearly 70 congressional staffers in September 2011, along with a few key Members of Congress, then spoke again in March to a standing-room-only crowd of Senate staffers, as well as a small briefing with current Chair of the House Judiciary Committee (and likely next Chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee) Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). The March briefing was videotaped and will be available for viewing on the website of the Task Force on American Innovation at: